Drunk with ideals of fame and fortune like many film industry wannabes who come to Los Angeles mesmerized by the expansive back lots and star-seeking paparazzi on Robinson Blvd., writer-director Stephen Susco quickly realized that he needed to pull his head out of the clouds if he wanted to make it any further in Hollywood. As a graduate student at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Susco immersed himself in the craft of screenwriting and wrote away, day in and day out. His unrelenting discipline and passion for the craft eventually lead him to his first professional job, with director Ted Demme, before he even received his diploma from USC.
Yet it wasn’t until his scripts for the highly popular horror remakes The Grudge and The Grudge II grossed an incredible $250 million worldwide that Susco’s status in the industry skyrocketed. In the wake of The Grudge‘s box office success, Susco is spreading his wings and leaving the horror genre for the time being for a string of novel adaptations, intricate independents and even a teen comedy. After a well-received premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Susco’s directorial debut, Red, opens today in Los Angeles, New York and several other select cities nationwide. His production company, Zero Hour Films, also has several features in development including a drama entitled Sanctuary, which Susco adapted from John Connolly’s novel, Bad Men, and High School, a stoner comedy that could very well give Judd Apatow a run for his money.
Lauren Barbato (MM): Did going to film school help you prepare for Hollywood? What did you learn at USC that still remains with you as a professional screenwriter?
Stephen Susco (SS): Though you clearly don’t need to go to film school to work in Hollywood, my experience at USC was a good one. Having three years to immerse myself in the medium was quite a blessing—and to be able to work with people who had “been through the fire” provided invaluable wisdom and insight.
I learned a great deal at USC, but what left the most indelible mark was that it taught me discipline. Being at a school with hundreds of other people who were equally passionate about breaking in was a rather daunting experience. The competition was fierce, and it was clear that it was even worse beyond the confines of the school. It made me realize that this wasn’t something I could take lightly; if I was serious about it, I’d have to get my butt in gear.
MM: It’s a bit unusual for a moviemaker to go from a highly successful studio film to a string of indies. As a screenwriter, how do the two markets differ? Do you prefer one over the other?
SS: Up until The Grudge went into production in 2003, I’d been fortunate in that I’d been able to work in both worlds. I’d had over a dozen professional jobs before The Grudge—and though most of them were at the studio level, a handful of them were independents. As fate would have it, I actually wrote Red at the same time I was writing The Grudge.
What a lot of people don’t know is that The Grudge actually began as something of an independent film. I developed it with Vertigo Entertainment and Ghost House Pictures (Sam Raimi’s company), who had a deal with the American arm of a German financing entity called Senator Entertainment. They raised the entire budget of the film (around $3.5 million) through foreign pre-sales, and were initially moving forward as an independent production. When we were about to start casting, they ended up showing the script to some studios—and found a number of them interested in distributing. So practically overnight a deal was struck, the budget was raised to about $9 million and the conversion was complete.
I generally find development to be smoother on the independent level. There are less people contributing to the soup, and therefore the end project tends to be a bit more unified. Additionally, studios develop a much larger slate of projects than the smaller independent shops, so on the independent level you oftentimes have a clearer feel about whether your project is a “priority” or not. But I enjoy working in both arenas, and will continue to do so.
MM: Many of your recent works, such as Red, Sanctuary and your directorial debut, White, are adapted from novels. What catches your attention in a previously written work that inspires you to adapt it to the big screen?
SS: It’s hard to say, really. I’ve always been an avid reader and am attracted to books with solid story and a flare for the visual—that’s how I ended up tinkering with screenwriting in the first place. If I’m reading a book that I would love to see on the big screen, then it’s something I’ll try to get involved in (á la Red, Sanctuary and White).
The biggest challenge is to figure out how to capture the truth of the author’s work and represent it in the most honest way—knowing you’re likely going to have to make changes. Red (by Jack Ketchum) was one of the smoothest adaptations I’ve done—the book was very economical and almost read like a film. But I’ve adapted other projects which have required a great deal of surgery, like The Forge of God and The Anvil of Stars (by Greg Bear); the two books together comprised more than 1,100 pages and needed to be compressed into 135 pages of script. That’s a lot of cutting. I always feared a late-night call from Greg, and hearing the words: “What did you do to my baby?”
MM: You’ve had quite the success with selling pitches to the top studios. What do you believe makes (and sells) the perfect pitch?
SS: I think it’s a simple formula, really: The perfect pitch is a good story well-told. With regard to selling the perfect pitch, well, that’s a different story altogether. You need to factor in the marketability of the idea, the executive’s ability to turn around and sell it to his or her boss, the studio’s ability to consider how they’ll ultimately sell the idea to the general public, the long-term profitability of the idea based on the studio’s short-term experiences…
You get the picture. The point is that I believe it simply comes down to passion. If you believe in a story, just figure out the right way to tell it (and sell it). If one person isn’t interested, find another. And repeat ad infinitum until someone finally says “yes.”